Published in Jul-Aug 2021
Creative thinking is not for the fainthearted; it is a bold, disruptive process that opens up worlds of possibilities. We have mostly been taught to think and do things in a linear way. We grew up believing that the only ‘organised’ way to do things correctly was to follow a structured, step-by-step approach – there always had to be a beginning, a middle and a conclusion. However, it is said that creativity should run free, allowing thoughts to reach a unique outcome.
Creativity is defined as a tendency to generate or recognise ideas, alternatives or possibilities that may be used in problem-solving, communication or entertainment. It is rooted in lateral thinking, directing the mind across various dimensions to generate ideas. This means that in a creative headspace, people are more likely to think in different directions at the same time. Despite this seemingly sporadic thought process, British social psychologist and co-founder of the London School of Economics, Graham Wallas in his book The Art of Thought outlined his theory that creativity follows a four-stage process of preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.
1. The Irony of the Creative Process
The fact that such a non-linear, multidimensional thought process can be categorised within the context of a linear process is an irony. Creative thinking combines both inward and outward experiences that ultimately materialise into something entirely new – this is also demonstrated in Wallas’ Four-stage Model of the creative process, where creatives first collect information, data and resources to ‘prepare’ for the thinking process by exposing themselves to the relevant information and the world around it. This is followed by the incubation stage, where the thoughts are left to simmer, while the person shifts their focus somewhere else. The illumination phase refers to an ‘Aha!’ moment, where insights arise from the deeper layers of the mind and surface as conscious awareness. This phase is the most dramatic, as the solution presents itself out of nowhere. Finally, the verification phase includes submitting the creative revelation to external criticism, refining and finally materialising the idea.
2. The Process in Practice
Although the process outlined above may help put the creative style into perspective, it does not necessarily play out in the same way for all creative thinkers. For instance, the incubation stage does not necessarily take place as a conscious action, nor does every great idea present itself as an ‘Aha!’ moment. If this was the case, creatives would conduct their research and simply stop working, waiting for the ‘Aha!’ moment to magically dawn upon them. Instead, we see creatives actively conduct brainstorming sessions and bounce ideas off each other, until they find an idea with real potential. In fact, free thinking and random associations (which are very erratic) also form a basis for creative thinkers to generate effective ideas. The truth is, creativity is practised within the context of the problem at hand and active thinking sessions and techniques are used to reach a conclusion.
3. Creativity and Originality
Many creative leaders argue that creativity relies on past experiences and exposure to create new connections in the mind. An idea is always the result of a new connection made between two or more elements that already exist in our mind. To simplify, creative ideation is not only about generating something new from a blank slate; it is also about taking what is already there and rearranging it in a unique way. Countless examples exist – from the conception of the smartphone to the development of airplanes. An effective tool to get the mind thinking this way is by using the SCAMPER technique – Substitution, Combination, Adaptation, Magnification or Minification, Putting (to other uses), Elimination and Reversal. For instance, consider the challenge: “How can I launch a digital campaign to increase sales for my FMCG client?” Think about all the ways you can generate leads. Is there a way to substitute the procedure for generating leads online? Can different platforms be combined to generate leads? Can the procedure be adapted or copied from a competitor? What part of the lead generation procedure can be magnified or minified? What other uses can the lead generation procedure be put to? What can be eliminated from the lead generation procedure? Is there a way the procedure can be reversed to get more leads? All these questions provide the ground for creating new connections in your mind to come up with new ideas.
4. Guiding Creative Energies in the Right Direction
Although creativity is an iterative and lateral process, you will require a proper understanding of the objective, as well as extensive insight into the problem at hand in order to apply a method to all the madness. This is not to say there is a universal method; creative processes vary from person to person and while there is no set formula for practising creativity, a pattern can be formed based on how your mind is tuned to think. Something that has helped me in ideating is being able to create a strong contextual environment in my head, within which all the thinking takes place. This includes conducting research, speaking to people and getting their opinions, reaching out to experts, etc. Once the context has been established, it is important to think about the objective and then consider an insight your idea can hinge on. As workers in the creative industry, we cannot treat our minds as an incubator and wait until the ‘Eureka!’ moment arrives; we must actively stimulate our minds by asking ‘creative questions’ and think of various possibilities. The magic question that often does the job is “What if…” while making various associations in your mind and recognising new connections between various concepts. Once an idea with good potential emerges is when the idea must be ‘cooked’ i.e. looked at through a critical lens and assessed with regards to its feasibility and its connection with the brand, the objective, the context and its relevance.
Some of the greatest creative thinkers never followed a step-by-step process; their minds were tuned to look at things from a different perspective to make the new connections and assumptions essential in forging unique ideas. Steve Jobs said it right, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Muhammad Ali Khan is Associate Director Creative & Strategy at Spectrum VMLY&R. He also teaches in the Masters of Advertising programme at SZABIST-Karachi.